Recognising Hostile Intelligence Activity

The threat of espionage and foreign interference to Australian interests is very real, continues to evolve and presents an enduring security challenge we all need to address. However, the warning signs of espionage or foreign interference are often overlooked or not reported.

Foreign actors do not limit their collection activities to highly classified national security information and have a strong interest in a range of information available across Australian government, business, university and other interests. Information does not need to be sensitive or classified to be highly sought-after. Any official or commercially sensitive information that satisfies the information requirements of a foreign government is valuable. Even information that seems innocuous in isolation may be aggregated with other information to fill intelligence gaps or identify individuals for possible future targeting.


Espionage is the clandestine or deceptive acquisition of privileged information by or for the benefit of a foreign power. This includes, but is not limited to, the unauthorised passing of knowledge, classified documents or other material to a person working on behalf of a foreign power.

Classic indicators of espionage can include attitudes or behaviour such as:

Removing information from the workplace

This can include examples such as placing sensitive documents or electronic storage devices such as thumb drives into a bag to take home.

Introducing electronic devices into secure or sensitive work areas

This can include examples such as bringing electronic devices (e.g. thumb drives, cameras or mobile phones) into secure or sensitive areas of the workplace which may be used to record or copy information.

Trying to elicit sensitive information

This can include examples such as probing questions to seek additional information about sensitive topics, beyond what is needed or appropriate for the conversation or situation.

Excessive photocopying or printing

This can include examples such as making unnecessary copies of work material which cannot be accounted for at a later date.

Unexplained affluence

This can include examples such as buying expensive items or undertaking activities that would not seem to be affordable on a particular income.

Lack of discretion

This can include examples such as bragging inappropriately about work with those who do not need to know the information, as they may also be doing the same thing outside work.

Disgruntlement, dissatisfaction or disillusionment

This can include examples such as expressions of anger, disappointment or resentment towards their organisation, or the Australian Government, to the extent of talking about revenge or retaliation.

Personal vulnerabilities

This can include examples such as individuals who appear to be struggling with personal issues and are under unusual strain as it is possible they could be coerced or blackmailed to pass information to an unauthorised party.


This can include examples such as individuals who seem exhilarated by the thrill of doing something wrong and have a disregard for security procedures.

Unreported foreign travel

This can include examples of overseas travel that does not appear to be connected with a legitimate work requirement, occurs suddenly, or is not appropriately declared in accord with employment or other security requirements.

Divided loyalty or ideology

This can include examples such as obvious allegiances to countries beside Australia, or to a particular ideology and may seem to favour these above the interests of Australia.

Working odd hours

This can include examples such as arriving at work early or leaving late for no apparent reason, or engineering opportunities to be alone or unsupervised in the office.

Foreign influence vs foreign interference

Foreign powers have an interest and desire to influence Australian Government, business, academic and individual decision-making to benefit their political, economic and strategic interests. When conducted in an open, lawful and transparent manner, these activities contribute positively to the debate and are welcome.

Foreign interference involves clandestine, deceptive or threatening activities that undermine Australia’s sovereignty and prejudices its values, interests and security. Foreign actors are creating and pursuing opportunities to undermine Australia’s sovereignty to advance a foreign power’s interest by interfering in Australia’s decision-making at all levels of government, as well as Australia’s businesses, universities and media organisations.

Foreign actors – whether Government officials, intelligence officers or their proxies – will seek contacts and develop relationships to exert influence and pursue those objectives.

Warning signs of an interaction transitioning from influence to interferences could include

  • Reduced transparency – this can include requests to transition to less open or non-corporate forms of communication or to reduce potential public oversight of an engagement;
  • A relationship being ongoing and privileged – to the exclusion of sections of the community;
  • A suggested or implied quid pro quo;
  • Attempts to conceal a relationship or interaction; and
  • A request, suggestion or pressure to influence others to take a particular position.

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